Water For Elephants is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year, and consulting the meticulously kept list on the inside of my Moleskine planner for 2007, I’ve read quite a lot of books this year. Last week, I sat down to read a chapter before bed (I was somewhere near 2/3 done with the book) and ended up reading the rest of the book right there, I couldn’t bear to put it down. It moves quickly enough to be gripping, and slow enough to be tantalizing. The pacing is just perfect.

As are the little secrets revealed in little morsels through the book: the character with the most secrets is not Jacob himself, or even his love, Marlena, but their elephant, Rosie. Also harboring secrets of his own, making him pathetically sympathetic after you’ve wrung your hands with hatred of him is the anti-hero, August, Marlena’s husband and the equestrian manager of the circus. It’s a heartwarming circus tale with a whore with a heart of gold, a courageous dwarf, a dying alcoholic in the era of Prohibition, and a circus manager with an inferiority complex sitting on top of lousy business sense.

Sara Gruen manages to effortlessly move between Jacob in the 1930s, traveling with the circus, to Jacob in the present era, watching a circus being brought to town outside of the nursing home where he lives. There are no seams between Jacob’s memories of the past and his experiences of the present – the movement back and forth never feels choppy, which is quite an accomplishment for moving the story forward over sixty years time.

And Rosie! Rosie the elephant. Oh, I loved her so. Like Jacob, I will not tell you Rosie’s secrets. She must let you in on those herself.

I’m not usually one for YA lit, but when going through the free books pile back at Borders, I picked up Un Lun Dun by China Miéville because hey, it was free. And I liked the cover.

It did not disappoint. I would have gladly paid money for this book, because it was utterly enjoyable.  The premise is that 12 year old Deeba and her friend, Zanna, find a way from London to its ab-city, UnLondon. In this alternate reality, garbage from London gets turned into houses. Feral milk cartons become pets. Giraffes are fearsome predators, roaming the streets.  Things from London get transported through the Odd into UnLondon, the good and also… the bad.

London’s pollution has been getting sucked into UnLondon and it has taken the form of an evil consciousness, The Smog, and it’s gearing up a hostile take over.  Deeba takes it as her mission to save UnLondon from The Smog, and this heroic quest – with the help of a talking book, a half-ghost, a man with a pincushion for a head, and various others, is the story of Un Lun Dun.

The most interesting aspect of the book, to me, was the immediate relevance of The Smog. Miéville was able to take a pressing environmental and political issue – air pollution – and turn it into the central point of a book marketed to children without being preachy.  Reading the book as an adult, the evil Environmental Minister is an immediately relevant figure, but as a child, I wouldn’t necessarily make the connection that all politicians have double motives.  Still, having environmental issues entering the collective unconscious in subversive ways – like children’s books – is very interesting to me.

Anyone can pick up a copy of An Inconvenient Truth and know that they are being preached to. Usually, the only people who would read a book like this would be members of the proverbial choir – or the guests of their homes who find it in the bathroom. Books like Un Lun Dun are more likely to find a broader audience, and even if they don’t immediately succeed in creating environmental warriors, the point has been made that pollution is a force to be reckoned with.

I read a lot of quality fiction, stuff that could be generally classified as “literature.” I keep meaning to write more about what I read, but the problem with quality reading material is that I don’t have too much to say about it. I write down a lot of inspiring quotations in my journal, but when it comes to making some sort of commentary, I’m completely lost. There are a lot of people writing insightful reviews on these works, and they do it a lot better than I do. Some of them are even professionals. I may have found my calling in the “reading something and then writing about it” world. In between reading works of “literature,” I read a fair amount of flat out crap. And I love it.

After reading what may be the emotionally heaviest book (though totally beautiful and worth it) I’ve ever encountered (and I read about the Holocaust a lot), I needed a pick-me-up. It came to me in the form of an advance reader’s copy of The Manny that I scored for free when I was working for Borders. The Manny? Now that is something I have a lot to say about. My $120,000 college education is going to come in handy on this one. Hold on to your seats, we’re going to have a dissection of gender and class issues here folks! Ohboy! [First, I would like to recommend that for a brief analysis of this book in song form, you check out this amazing video on YouTube.]

I would like to dive right in to a quote from page 1 that illuminates the premise of the novel and also illustrates the concept of “Trophy Babies” that I have talked about quite a bit in my own wee life. I know the sort of people who have had Trophy Babies, and while they are not NYC elite, they are certainly snobs of a certain variety, possessing far more money than sense.

“These children play an important role in their parents’ never-ending game of one-upmanship as they are trotted out in smocked dresses, shuttled from French tutor to cello class, and discussed like prize livestock at a 4-H fair.”

Indeed, for the remainder of the novel, children are treated as a high-maintenance accessory, and not an actual fulfilling part of life. Certainly not worth having for their own sake. Not only does every family have a nanny, but some families have a nanny for each child. On picking up the book, I thought the premise was simply that the protagonist went against societal-norms and hired a male nanny for her children, scoring one for dis-establishing the oppressive gender binary. Oh, would that it were that subversive. Alas, the “manny” in question is a male nanny specifically for the purposes of providing a positive male influence for her eldest son in the absence of his workaholic father. Her eldest son who already had one nanny, albeit a female one.

Let us take a minute and pause on the implications here. The son “requires” a male influence in his life in order to develop properly. What about the millions of boys raised in single-mother households? Oh, that’s right. No one in “The Grid” (as the Upper East side is referred to in this tome) would be a single mother. And if she was, she would hire a manny. As for filling in for an absentee father, no one can fill in a parental role on a contractual basis. Co-parenting requires a commitment. Whether or not that commitment should be coming from someone whose main concern in life is his social status and how, even as a member of the upper class elite, he doesn’t have enough of it because there exist people in the world who have more money, is debatable. In any case, a “manny” is hardly a reasonable solution for absentee parenting.

Of course, nothing in this novel is reasonable. It’s a trashy window into a world that we plebes will never enter! That’s why we’re reading it! In the tradition of such upper-class exposés as Pride and Prejudice, we read books that describe the folly of the upper class with the tried and true moral that those of us in the middle class may have less money, but our lives are so much more emotionally fulfilling, to make us feel better about the fact that we have less money. The class structure will never be toppled. We will never have our revolution. But, we can live vicariously through the experiences of fictional characters who vomit up caviar and realize that the “better life” was really their own humble upbringing.

Irritatingly, though the protagonist predictably ends up ending up her loveless marriage and leaving her high-stress high-status job and settling into a more mundane life “downtown,” none of this is done by her own actions. Jamie Whitfield is the least pro-active character I have ever seen written down on paper. How she managed to claw her way to the top of a major news network is beyond me, especially since she fails abominably at her job and her stress coping skills seem to be below-par for someone in her position. Her marriage is a miserable failure, and yet, she waits until walking in on her husband’s infidelity before deciding on a divorce. She doesn’t even decide to hire a “manny” to encourage her son’s development until being advised to do so by a friend. And the inevitable relationship with said “manny” (because let’s face it, without this particular element, we would not be reading this book)? While the feelings are mutual, the relationship is, also predictably, entirely on his terms. So much for high-powered women being bastions for modern feminism.

Despite her career and class status, Jamie Whitfield is a bastion of gender conformity. As is her “manny,” who only has a job in the “service industry” as a hobby. His real career? Software development. At which he’s doing very well, thankyouverymuch. This is all just a whim, a sort of extended favor to a pretty girl. There is no devotion to a calling to working with children on his part, though he is certainly devoted to the specific children involved – perhaps more so than their own mother, who seems to be attached to her own children as most people are to their dogs. Which is to say, she likes them, but only to the extent that they make pleasant companions. Their inner lives are of little to no concern.

In the end, everything goes down as one would expect. The rich are shallow. Meaningful life is found among the “salt of earth,” who evidently live in Brooklyn. High power and high class are no match for happiness, and as the great philosopher Lennon once said, “Money can’t buy me love.” The manny returns to his software company and returns once the ink is dry on the divorce papers, starting a relationship with a former employer on his terms. Jamie finds a less intense job to spend more time with her children, because no, women really can’t balance motherhood and high-power careers. Gender conformity will live another day. Class consciousness will go back to sleep, and the plebes will rest happy knowing that private pilots do not bring emotional fulfillment, which is far more important in life than being able to burn the clothes in your closet the nanosecond that the new season’s fashions are off the runway.

And suckers like me will continue wasting our education in the social sciences on reading crap like this. And loving it.

I have taken it upon myself to complete this, my sacred task. Ladies and germs, I bring you, “To Be or Not To Be” translated from English into LOLcats.  The original text may be viewed here, for those of you who shamefully have not committed it to memory. Also, if like my roommate you are shamefully unfamiliar with LOLcats, here is the definitive source.

I CAN IZ BE? I CAN IZ NOT BE? THAR IZ KWESTION.
CAN IT IZ BE NOBLER IN MIND 2 SUFFAR
SLINGZ AND ARROWS OF OUTRAGEOUS FORSHUN
OR 2 TAEK ARMZ AGAINST SEE OF TROUBLEZ
AND BAI OPPOSING, END THEMZ? 2 DAI: 2 SLEEPS;
NO MOAR; AND BAI SLEEPS 2 SAI WE END
TEH HEART-ACHE AND THOUZAND NATRAL SHOCKZ
FLESH CAN IZ BE HEIR 2. IZ A CONSUMMASHUN
DEVOUTLY 2B WISHED 2 DAI: 2 SLEEPS;
2 SLEEPS PURRCHANCE 2 DREEM. AI! THAR IZ RUB.
4 IN SLEEPS OF DETH, WHUT DREEMZ MAY COME? 
WHEN WE IZ SHUFFLED OFF ZIS MORTAL COIL
MUST GIVE US PAWZ: THAR IZ RESPECT
THAT IZ CAN GIVE CALAMITY 2 SUCH LONG LIFE.
4 WHO CAN IZ BEAR TEH WHIPZ AND SCORNZ OF TIEM?
TEH  OPPRESSOR’S WRONG? TEH PROUD MENS CONTOOMELY?
TEH PANGZ OF DISPRIZED LUV? TEH LAWZ DELAY?
TEH INSOLENCE OF OFFICE? AND TEH SPURNS
THAT PATIENT MERIT CAN IZ OF TEH UNWORTHY TAKES
WHEN HE IZ CAN BE OF HIS QUIETUS MAKES
WITH A BEAR BODKIN? WHO CAN IZ FARDELZ BEAR
2 GRUNT AND SWET UNDER A WEARY LIEF
BUT THAR IS DRED OF SOEMTHIN AFTAR DETH
THAR UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY FROM WHOSE BOURNE
NO TRAVELLER CAN IZ BE COMING BACK. IZ PUZZLING TEH WILL
AND MAEKS US BARE TEH ILLZ WE IZ CAN HAVE
IZ NOT 2 FLY TO OTHERS WE IZ NOT KNOW?
THUS CONSHUNS MAEKS COWURDZ OF US ALL.
AND THUS TEH NATIV HEW OF RESOLUSHUN
IZ CAN B SICKLIED OVER WITH TEH PALE CAST OF THOT
AND ENTERPRIZEZ OF GREAT PITH AND MOMENT
THAR REGARD IZ CAN BE THEIR CURRENTZ TURNED AWRY
OH NOES! THE NAME OF ACTION! I HAZ LOST IT! SOFT U NAO!
TEH FAIR OFEELIA! NYMPH, IN ALL UR ORISONS
CAN IZ B REMEMBERED ALL MAI SINZ.         

Serendipitously, I came across these images of Persian illumination while cutting up old National Geographics for artistic purposes.  The images are from an article on “The Arab World” in the July 1972 issue, but beyond that, I don’t have much information other than the subject matter.  These aren’t the Ottoman miniatures discussed in My Name is Red, but they are of similar style. Anyhow, I thought it was neat how this crossed my path just after reading and writing about the book.

 

The Koran.

Leo, by Samarkand artists.

Capture of Smyrna, by Persian miniaturists.

Antar – a warrior who bowed to the power of love.

[Ok, I let this post ferment for at least two weeks because someone closed Firefox when I was writing it and then I forgot about it. Geez. I am lame. Oh well! Better late than never!]

I just finished reading My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk [link provides an excellent concise review], whose plot centers around illustration of manuscripts in 16th century Istanbul. While I do know a fair amount about Art History, my education has been so laughably Eurocentric that I was, to this point, completely unaware of the Turkish art of miniatures.

Well, no longer! This amazing, amazing novel has inspired me to find out what this art is all about. The descriptions in the novel are so vivid that I had amazing images in my mind of what the art itself would look like, and come to find, I wasn’t too far off.

Some links!

Oh hooray for books and art and the one inspiring you to learn more about the other!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately that this poor blog needs to get some TLC to nurse it back to health, it’s been neglected so long. And seeing this artist’s work [via AT:SF] gave me the inspiration to do just that.

 

Books as Objects, by Jonathan Callan 

Since starting (and still on page 40something, thanks for asking) Light in August, I have started and not finished quite a lot of books.  I have no idea how many books I’m in the middle of at the moment, but yesterday I did actually manage to finish one.

What is the What holds the honor of being the first serious piece of literature I’ve finished in months. (No hard feelings, Terry Prachett, but Mort is hardly serious literature.)  And while I don’t necessarily think that Dave Eggers is the best thing to happen to American writing since sliced, er, Hemingway, I do think that this is probably his best piece of work to date.

It really shouldn’t work, Dave Eggers ghost-writing the autobiography of a young Sudanese refugee. It should be awful, or at least schmaltzy.  But instead it’s gripping, intense, tragic, and even occasionally, quite funny.

It left me with such high hopes for the American novel, that I started right in on Mark Z. Danielewski’s newest opus, Only Revolutions, which thus far I like better in theory than in practice. But that’s a rant for a different time.

Death is one of my favorite subjects when it comes to my reading material.  I have a stack of books about dead bodies and dying, and I equally enjoy books where the anthropomorphic personification of Death takes the main stage as a character – i.e., Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. (Bonus: Death in Sandman is a really hott chick.) For a long long time, my husband has been trying to get me into Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series and while I enjoyed a few books, I wasn’t hooked until I started reading the Death series.

This isn’t Death as the Grim Reaper, but rather Death as just another anthropomorphic personification doing his job. Death has an assistant named Albert, a horse named Binky, and can’t quite get the details of the plumbing right in his bathroom.  Thus far, I’ve read about Death’s job-related malaise in Reaper Man (which also includes the Death of Rats, who is a rather brilliant character), Death as family man in Soul Music and most recently, Death’s attempts at taking an apprentice in Mort.

Of the three, Reaper Man is probably the strongest though in retrospect, I probably should have read Mort first. Even if you’re not into all things morbid as I am, I would highly recommend them as light-hearted reads.

I’m going to Iceland next week and plan on taking Hogfather on the plane with me – in which Death stands in for the Hogfather, who is the Discworld version of Santa Claus. Good times, good times.

The more I read about previous American wars, the less hope my little peacenik hippie heart has for our current endeavors.

Another quote taken from A People’s History of the United States:

The determination of our […] President to prosecute the war, and the probability of his success in wrining from the people men and money to carry it on, is made evident frorm the puny opposition arrayed against him. No politician of any considerable distinction or eminence seems willing to hazard his popularity with his party… by an open and unqualified disapprobation of the war. None seem willing to take their stand for peace at all risks; and all seem willing that the war should be carried on, in some form or other.

Freed slave Fredrick Douglass on the Mexican War.

I can’t decide which is worse, that I as an American citizen who passed my history classes in school with flying colors didn’t realize that we waged war on Mexico to acquire California or that now one of the major political issues in said state is the inability for Mexican citizens to legally find work there.

Ugh.

I’ll just be banging my head into the wall if you need me.